Has American Democracy Become an Inverted Totalitarian System?

The evidence that the ruling elite has transformed American democracy into “inverted totalitarianism” is accumulating remorselessly.

In 2003, Princeton political scientist Sheldon Wolin criticized the Neo-Con imperial project as evidence that the U.S. had been transformed from a genuine democracy (particularly vibrant during the New Deal) into “inverted totalitarianism,” where the elite can rule a nation of sheep without violence. The poor black Americans who tried to flee Katrina by walking across that bridge to Louisiana and the Occupy Wall Street activists trying to demonstrate might raise an eyebrow at the “without violence” claim, but still, by comparison with Hitler or Pinochet, things still appear rather good in the U.S. (Things do not, obviously, look good at all in Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, or Pakistan.)

But has Wolin’s fundamental point—that the elite has seized control of the U.S. via an inverted totalitarianism much harder to see but quite as effective as the traditional kind—stood the test of time?

Back in 2003, with Americans madly cheering the elite for leading the country into war, Wolin saw the U.S. political system in terms that would have seemed inexcusably harsh to almost every angry and vengeful citizen:


Representative institutions no longer represent voters. Instead, they have been short-circuited, steadily corrupted by an institutionalized system of bribery that renders them responsive to powerful interest groups whose constituencies are the major corporations and wealthiest Americans. The courts, in turn, when they are not increasingly handmaidens of corporate power, are consistently deferential to the claims of national security. [“Inverted Totalitarianism,” The Nation.com  5/1/03.]

How well are representative institutions representing voters these days? Do you 10,000,000 newly unemployed folks feel well represented by your representatives in government? How about those of you who had your homes snatched away by banks that refused to discuss ways to avoid foreclosure?

As for Wolin’s reference to “an institutionalized system of bribery” that renders your representatives “responsive” to “the major corporations and wealthiest Americans,” who thinks that is not a tragically accurate portrayal of the 2008 bailout of the billionaires and subsequent refusal of Washington to bring those suspected of large-scale financial fraud into court for public trial before their “peers” (that would be you)?

And what about his description of the courts as “handmaidens of corporate power?” Does that remind anyone of judges looking the other way at robosigning?

One could continue this for a very long time, but just one further example seems to make the point nicely: seven long, hard years after Wolin wrote those words, the Supreme Court—the final Constitutional bastion of fair play, handed down the infamous Citizens United decision granting corporations personhood and transforming our electoral system into “one dollar one vote.”

Now, in 2013, does anyone still find his supposedly left-wing critique anything but right on target? It is too easy to compliment Wolin for being able to see the future. One is almost driven to the conclusion that, while Americans slept,  the corporate elite used Wolin’s accusation as their plan of action.


One comment on “Has American Democracy Become an Inverted Totalitarian System?

  1. Pingback: Bill Moyers and Sheldon Wolin, 2008. Do we live in a Democracy? | Friend Nature

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